One thing that gets easily forgotten in the consumerist stampede that is the holiday season is Christmas has more to it than saccharine store displays and ugly fights over Nativity scenes in the public square. Gremlins is a holiday movie, for instance. So are Die Hard and the “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror. Mac, a performance artist and drag queen whose extraordinary 240-song and -year retelling of American history played in four six-hour chunks at the Curran in September 2017, will return to that theater for 11 performances of Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce at the end of the month.
A 24-Decade History upended the standard American Pageant-style narrative in favor of a deeper understanding of how popular tunes are actually a vehicle for powerful ideologies that shape the nation’s consciousness, by buttressing a genocidal, white supremacist, heteronormative, capitalist patriarchy. The sprawling work, Mac said again and again, is a “Radical Faerie realness ritual sacrifice.” And so, it turns out, is Holiday Sauce.
“It’s an extension of the show,” Mac tells SF Weekly from Salt Lake City, where he’s staging an abridged version of A 24-Decade History. “It certainly wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t made the show. I think of it as ‘How can we make a ritual out of these performance-art concepts in that the holidays are a ritual that’s thrust on you every year?’ ”
In other words, Christmas ain’t going anywhere, and if December brings you down, you’re going to have to make your peace with it one way or another. So Mac, his surrealist-maximalist set and costume designer Machine Dazzle, and a band of 10 musicians will be back with a similar cast of Dandy Minion helpers and a penchant for making audience uncomfortable to prove a point. At one point during the fourth part of A 24-Decade History, Mac ordered all white people who had paid for a ticket to get up and let a self-identified person of color sit there instead, then extracted a promise from everyone that they’d go home and listen to Nina Simone.
He brought this puckish energy to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week, singing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” and inveighing against the NRA and “that orange thing.” It’s a little more pointed than the average musical guest, but Mac — whose preferred pronoun is “judy” — says censorship is a relative rarity, Salt Lake City notwithstanding.
“When I performed here last time,” Mac says, “they had seen me and were like, ‘Can you not wear the thong?’ I have a thong that Machine put me in. They said, ‘All the people who come to see it will do is write and complain about the nudity on the stage, and we want them to focus on the show.’ ”
Mac complied, wearing assless panties instead.
“I told the story about how they didn’t want me to wear a thong, and then I turned around and the audience burst out laughing and everybody applauded and nobody wrote nasty letters to the venue,” judy says. “I find there’s always a way around censorship.”
Having received a MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as a “Genius Grant,” Mac is also comparatively flush with cash, as artists go. Rather than plow that $600,000 straight back into future productions like Holiday Sauce or his 2019 Broadway play, Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, starring Nathan Lane, Mac thought further ahead.
“I had the benefit of learning from my elders in the performance-art world,” judy says. “You do have to take care of yourself. A handful of them have gotten MacArthurs and they have no money right now because they thought they could spend it all on their art and they’d be fine. And now they don’t know how to pay rent.”
That sense of prudent responsibility is laudable, but it’s not necessarily going to carry over into Holiday Sauce. Mac’s longtime collaborator Machine Dazzle, hot off his success as the Grand Marshal of Greenwich Village’s Halloween Parade last week, is reluctant to divulge too many details apart from that it will be a “beautifully messy” two-hour show that’s “very shiny and very saucy,” with a Consensual Santa whose lap you may only sit in if you ask.
“We like to describe the show as everything you love and hate about the holidays, like ‘Christmas as calamity’ — and a slight undertone of Christmas with Grandma,” he says. “Our goal is to keep this show going every year and just keep adding to it, so in five years it’ll be this huge spectacular, how-can-you-possibly-add-another-layer thing. That’s the idea and there are a lot of familiar songs in it, as you can imagine, but it’s very much in the spirit of the 24-Decade show.”
In 2020, that show will have been a living theatrical production for a decade, and since it’s a cycle of decades, Mac and Dazzle intend on winding it down. By the time their fall 2019 European tour is complete, they’ll have brought it to almost every city with a venue that can afford to stage it, but they’re working on a sizzle reel for an eventual 24-hour-long film version. It’s already brought them to unusual places, including the site of a long-gone theme park in Virginia with 15-to-20-foot statues of former U.S. presidents.
“The theme park went belly up, so all of these huge weird sculptures were transported to this weird field,” Dazzle says. “So we got into drag with some Dandy Minions and we frolicked among the presidential busts.”
They also attended a re-enactment of Paul Revere’s midnight ride called Battle on the Green, where their gaudy costumes from the show’s opening 1776-86 decade elicited some slurs and insults. Dazzle describes Mac’s look as “Betsy Ross had an illegitimate trans child who ran away and opened a Washateria, and that’s the grand opening of America,” but the look was secondary to the act of simply being present.
“There was this little parade in town on that day, so we just joined without asking. No one stopped us,” Dazzle says. “It’s about going to these American historical events and re-enactments and memorials or places of interest and inserting the queer narrative just by being there, a continuation of the story because it doesn’t exist in the history books.”
In lieu of the usual tricorn hat, Dazzle had on a balloon wig and a dance jacket, plus a studded punk belt wrapped around his waist with some fringe.
“That’s usually what I wear for the first decade,” he says. “They’re styled after official Civil War uniforms, so I was a little early for that. But I wore it anyway because I happened to have one and I like it — and if it’s not decade-appropriate, I don’t care. This is a queer story. Perfection is for assholes.”
Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce, Nov. 21-Dec. 1, at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St. $29-$59, sfcurran.com